Last Saturday I was on the train to/from ‘Gathering of Women Leaders‘ (GWL), which looks at the barriers to women in leadership positions, and the difference that we can each make… so Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist appeared to be an appropriate book to read each way – and of course today is International Women’s Day, so…!
On pp12-13 Sarah looks at what the notion of ‘feminism’ means, especially highlighting the mix of Christianity and feminism, and how much Christian action pre-dated modern secular feminism – with a focus on justice and human flourising:
Christians can give thanks for the good works associated with feminism, such as gaining of status for women as ‘persons’ under the law, voting, owning property, and defending themselves in a court of law against domestic violence and rape.
Before that, she had pleaded with the many women who have sought for a seat at “The Table”, where decisions are made about who is in/out, and huge theological arguments are thrown around making the case for women in/out of positions of leadership .. and instead suggests that we enjoy the great outside, focus our eyes upon the example of Jesus, and join the misfits, rebels, second-chance givers, the courageously vulnerable … I find p15 particularly depressingly recognisable – more widely than the debate between complementarians and egalitarians that she highlights:
Both sides can treat the Bible like a weapon. On both sides, there are extremists and dogmatists. We attempt to outdo each other with proof texts and apologetics, and I’ve heard it said that there is no more hateful person than a Christians who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong. In our hunger to be right, we memorise arguments, ready to spit them out at a moment’s notice. Sadly, we reduce each other, brothers and sisters, to straw men arguments, and brand each other ‘enemies of the gospel’.
As the book continues, Sarah talks about the times that she took time out from the formal church – time to focus on God, and to lose the ‘performance anxiety’ that she had experienced, and as she talks about what she learnt from childbirth – how ‘leaning in’ to the pain, rather than running away from it has provided some of the deepest learnings/freedoms in life. Sarah looks at the core writings of Paul which are often used in debates, and then looks at those texts within context. As we consider the position of women (p80)
If a woman is held back, minimised, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fulness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimise our gifts, hush her voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity…
On p115 – we hear that if there were more women pastors/preachers, there would be more examples that would make sense to women… and I really enjoyed the chapter on ‘Reclaiming the Church Ladies’ .. the tongue-in-cheek laughs at what passes for ‘women’s ministry’ in so many churches – no I don’t want to knit, do crafts, or that kind of thing either … that’s why I love GWL – we share the true joys and difficulties of life, and we engage with issues of real social justice… which we can see on p132:
We look at what women can offer – including strategic leadership, wisdom, counsel and teaching – not just cupcakes – though that can have its place too!
On p141, again, I was drawn into the despair of what we think our churches are for – the story of a young girl who had suffered at the hands of everyone that she had met, then someone suggested church… and she was ostracised because of wrong clothes, haircut, language, and wasn’t pretty’ .. so she went home and committed suicide … how do we make our churches welcoming to all, rather than ‘The Table’ that all have to fight to reach… and how do we learn to open our arms more widely.
Another bit I really like, and a good point to pull for my last one, is learning to let go of the notion that everything we have to do has to be ‘big plans’ .. I like looking for changing the overall processes/structures, but Jesus would encourage us not to be overwhelmed by the need to do everything on a large scale – we are apprentices, and we can start small – a cup of water for the thirsty is as appreciated as multi-billion pound projects!
If I was going to only read one book by Sarah Bessey, I would read the more recent Out of Sorts, but both are worth a read for different reasons – this for a good introduction to feminism, and the other for whole-life living!
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.